Very few large equestrian statues from antiquity have survived until modern times. Two that have reached us are the bronze statue of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, on display in the Capitoline Museums in Rome, and the Greek marble statue in fragments known as the Rampin Rider. Found by Georges Rampin in the late 19th century in Athens, it is a masterpiece of Archaic art and pre-dates the much more intact bronze of Marcus Aurelius by about 700 years.
Each statue tells us a huge amount about the time and place they come from the Rampin Rider from Athens in around 550 BC, compared to imperial Rome of around 174 AD. So in a two-horse race, which rider would be first past the finish line? It’s almost impossible to choose a winner and what is perhaps more interesting is the fact that these two works of art have reached us at all.
The Rampin Rider was all but smashed to pieces less than 100 years after it was sculpted and was buried in a ditch on Athens’ Acropolis. Meanwhile, the equestrian Marcus Aurelius was saved from being melted down in fourth century Rome only because of a mistaken identity the Christian authorities mistook the horseman for the devout emperor Constantine I, and so it survived while many other ‘pagan’ statues like it were lost.
Then as now, the horse-back figure usually portrays a hero or a leader; it symbolises military victory, strength and power. However, these symbols of political power are often the first landmarks to be pulled down when the next set of conquerors and commanders come along, making them vulnerable each time there is an (inevitable) regime change (Saddam Hussein’s statue didn’t last long after his regime was defeated in 2003). Add to this the size and fragility of large horse-backed statues (horses legs are notoriously delicate), then it becomes more amazing that any have survived at all for more than 1,800 years.
Other fragmentary parts of equestrian statues from antiquity are still with us – a horse’s head and a man’s foot, thought to the be parts of a mounted statue of Augustus from the first century AD, were found in a river in Germany last year. However, the Rampin Rider and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius are two of the most notable and complete mounted sculptures from antiquity. The Jockey of Artemison is another example from 140 BC – it was found in pieces in a shipwreck and is now on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Built about 700 years apart, one of marble and fragmented, the other of bronze and almost intact, there are few similarities between the two statues. Neither meets the scale of the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, but they are some of the oldest examples we have of mounted riders.
So in their very own Grand National, which horse would you back? The sixth century BC Greek horseman, whose head is in the Louvre while his body resides in Athens? Or the second century AD Roman bronze, said to be the inspiration for equestrian statues of the Renaissance?
Also known as the Rampin Horseman, this fragmented marble statue dates from 550 BC Greece.
Having been sabotaged during a Persian attack on Athens in 480 BC, it was re-discovered with other statue fragments in a ditch at the acropolis of Athens in 1877. The statue’s human head is on display at the Louvre, along with a replica cast of the surviving body parts, while the fragments that survive of the body are displayed in Athens along with a replica of the head. It wasn’t until 1936 that the head was associated with the rest of the statue.
The rider is sculpted in the style of the Hellenic ‘kouros’ figures, which are typically naked male statues, usually in a standing position (obviously not in this case), with wide-shouldered muscular frames, broad faces and curled or braided hair.
The Louvre describes the head of the horseman as a masterpiece of Archaic art, which blends Attic seriousness with the rich decorative tradition of eastern Greece.
The head is 27cm high, while the body is about 108cm high.
The identity of the Rampin Horseman is not known. He could be a hero or a member of the Athenian aristocracy, although his leafy crown suggests he could also be the winner of Hellenic games. Only fragments remain, but it’s thought that the statue could have been part of a pair of mounted riders. Scholars have guessed at their identities one suggestion is that they were Castor and Pollux, or Hippias and Hipparchus, the sons of Pisistratus. If on the other hand the statue was a single mounted rider, then it may have been an offering to the gods from a horseman.
Red and black pigments on the surface suggest the statue was originally coloured.
- At 2560 years old, it’s not to be sniffed at. Carved more than 700 years before the bronze Marcus Aurelius, this statue laid down the designs for mounted statues centuries before the Romans got in on the act. The equestrian statues of Rome would have taken much inspiration from statues like this one.
- Recognised as a Greek masterpiece.
- It’s regrettable that this statue remains only in several fragmented pieces and that these pieces are held in two different countries.
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius
This bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) was first displayed in ancient Rome in 173-6 AD.
The statue survived intact only because the emperor was mistaken for Constantine I. It was one of the few Roman statues to remain on public display during the Middle Ages. It stood in the piazza in front of the Lateran Palace until it was moved to the Capitoline Hill in the 16th century. A replica now stands in the middle of the Campidoglio square on the Capitoline, while the original is housed inside the Capitoline Museums, in a recently-built auditorium.
The bronze statue shows the emperor with an outstretched hand, symbolising peace and power. He is dressed in a toga and his hair is curled. The statue is far more life-like and has a more modern feel to it than the Rampin Rider.
As the only surviving imperial equestrian statue, it inspired and provided a blueprint for future Renaissance statues.
Having said that, the Roman artists in their turn were inspired by Greek sculpture, so without the Rampin Rider, we may not have had some of the famous Roman statues that still survive today.
By the second century AD, there were 20 or so bronze equestrian statues in Rome, but most didn’t survive. This one is the only intact bronze statue of a pre-Christian Roman emperor still with us today.
It stands 4.24m high, dwarfing the Rampin Rider, as well as anyone who goes to see it at the Capitoline Museums.
The rider is Marcus Aurelius, who was ruler of the Roman world between 169-180 AD. Also known as an important Stoic philosopher, the emperor was one of Rome’s ‘good’ emperors.
The statue may have been gilded originally.
- It’s remarkably intact for a Roman bronze mounted statue (having been restored several times).
- Although it’s far younger than the Rampin Horseman, its detail, size and the powerful stance of the rider and his horse make it one of the finest pieces in Rome’s Capitoline Museums.
- There are very few let-downs to this amazingly preserved statue.
Which of the two statues do you back? Let us know in the comments box below.